Alice Marble: Tennis Celebrity, Wonder Woman Writer, and Spy?
One of my favorite things about Comic Book Resources is Brian Cronin’s column Comic Book Legends Revealed, where he bunks and debunks various rumors and urban myths about comics history. This week he began with “The number one women’s tennis player in the world retired from amateur competition and then became a writer and editor on Wonder Woman’s comic book.”
Verdict: true! And the story only gets more awesome from there.
Alice Marble won four US Open Grand Slam singles finals, and one at Wimbledon, at least according to a minimally sourced Wikipedia article, and before she went professional was called the #1 amateur female tennis player in the world. However, professional tennis wasn’t exactly the most lucrative thing at the time. In 1940 international play was pretty much ruled out by war in Europe, and so Marble wasn’t exactly making bank.
Meanwhile, in 1941, Max Gaines and his All American Comics comic book company (which was at the time not an official part of DC Comics/National Publications) debuted a brand-new comic book character created by William Moulton Marston called Wonder Woman. Marston’s hook with the character was always that she was different from your standard superhero – she was meant to be a bit of a symbol for female readers.
Gaines took an unusual approach for the promotion of this new character – he gained testimonials from famous athletes of the day.
He thinks it is likely that while pursuing an endorsement from Marble, Gaines actually got himself a new associate editor on Wonder Woman. While there, Marble created Wonder Women, a secondary feature to the Wonder Woman title that highlighted a different historically important woman every week, and ran until 1946, three years after she left DC.
Here’s a bit of her installment about Florence Nightingale:
Marble eventually left DC just before a very dark period of her life: her new husband, a pilot, was killed in action, only days after she miscarried their potential child after getting in a car accident. After a failed suicide attempt, Marble must have pulled herself together, because, according to her posthumously published autobiography, a year later she was in Europe spying for the allies. Says Cronin:
As a famous celebrity, Marble could go places others could not. She was sent to Switzerland to do some celebrity tournaments. Her real mission, though, was to come into contact with a Swiss banker that she had been involved with in the past that the U.S. thought was involved with the Nazis. Marble’s job was to acquire Nazi financial data. She claimed that she did but was SHOT IN THE BACK by an enemy agent in the process!
After being shot, Marble was extracted back to the US and lived to the age of 77 in 1990. In between the end of WWII and then, however, she did at least one more really awesome thing that we could find. When the issue of integration rocked the U.S. Open in 1950, Marble threw her support firmly behind Althea Gibson, a 23-year-old African American woman and formidable player. Said Marble in a letter to American Lawn Tennis Magazine:
“Miss Gibson is over a very cunningly wrought barrel, and I can only hope to loosen a few of its staves with one lone opinion. If tennis is a game for ladies and gentlemen, it’s also time we acted a little more like gentle-people and less like sanctimonious hypocrites…. If Althea Gibson represents a challenge to the present crop of women players, it’s only fair that they should meet that challenge on the courts.”
If Gibson were banned from playing, she said, “then there is an ineradicable mark against a game to which I have devoted most of my life, and I would be bitterly ashamed.” Gibson would go on to rank in the top ten of American tennis players from 1955 to 1958, the year she ranked #1. In 1957 she became the first African American woman to win Wimbledon.
She was also apparently buried in the cemetery at the end of my childhood street, so that’s something I might have to go check out over Thanksgiving…
You can read Cronin’s whole article and the entirety of Alice Marble’s Florence Nightingale story at Comic Book Reasources.